Florida's Fascinating Circus History

Cortney Tarell
Florida's Fascinating Circus History
Photo Credits
Photo by Becky Phan on Unsplash

We don’t see traveling circuses, carnivals, and “freak shows”  around much these days, but there was a time when they were the most popular form of entertainment in the United States. The circus would come to town bringing carnival rides, exotic animals, and “freaks” fascinating for their deformities or special abilities. People would come from miles away to see the circus or visit the carnival, so performers spent most of their lives on the road with little downtime. Florida is known for its beaches and amusement parks, but most people don’t know that Florida has been tied to the circus for the past 100 years as well. 

Ringling moves to Sarasota Florida

   As with most things in the circus world, it all comes back to the Ringling Brothers. The five Ringling brothers worked together to start their own circus and then eventually merge it with the Barnum and Bailey Circus to create the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, which had a near monopoly on the traveling circus industry. John Ringling, the last remaining of the brothers, moved the winter quarters of their circus empire to Sarasota in 1927. He helped develop Sarasota into what it is today, making the entire city feel like a circus town and it is currently home to more circus headquarters and retired and active circus performers than any other city in the world. The estate purchased by John and his wife Mable to serve as their winter home now serves as an art museum housing some art from the Ringling collection, and a circus museum that exhibits the history of the circus.

Gibsonton, Florida

   Another famous show couple made Florida their home in the 1940s. Al and Jeanie Tomaini were known as “the World’s Strangest Couple”. He measured in at 8 and a half feet tall and was one of the tallest men in the world, while she was only 2 and a half feet tall and was called “The Half-Girl”. They moved to Gibsonton, Florida and opened a fishing camp called “The Giant’s Camp”.  Al also ran the police and fire stations, making him the tallest police chief or fire chief in history. Other carnival workers were drawn to Gibsonton, or “Gibtown” as it was often known. It became a place where people who would have been called “freaks” anywhere else could live without judgement. Soon the entire town was occupied by show people during their off seasons. It was a peaceful place to call home for people who were used to spending their whole lives traveling earning it the nickname “Showtown U.S.A.” The post office of the town had a special counter for “dwarves”, and special chairs were made in the bars for The Fat Lady and The Giant. There was a special ordinance that allowed people to keep carnival rides and exotic animals on their properties. It wasn’t unusual to see a tiger being trained on someone’s front lawn while walking through the neighborhood.

    Today Gibsonton is still home to the International Independent Showman’s Association, Inc., an association for people in the outdoor entertainment industry all over the world and Gibtown’s International Independent Showmen’s Museum, which highlights the carnival life with items donated by carnies. It also hosts the world’s largest trade show in the carnival industry. Most of the original carnival workers who lived in Gibsonton are no longer around, but it isn’t unusual to see an old carnival ride in a front yard.

Circus World

    Taking advantage of West Florida’s reputation as a circus town, a theme park called Circus World was opened on property owned by the Ringling Brothers in 1974. It included carnival rides, daily circus performances, and interactive experiences where guests could learn some of the stunts themselves. Unfortunately, the circus began to lose popularity shortly after that, and the park closed in 1986.

Retirement for Circus Performers

    Today Florida still serves as a retirement location for circus performers, but not the kind of performers you might think. The Ringling Brothers Center For Elephant Conservation in Polk City, Florida has been a retirement home for circus elephants for 20 years. It allows elephants ample room to run around and live as they would in the wild, while still giving guests the opportunity to interact with them. Early in 2016, The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus announced that they would no longer have elephants in their shows, and that the current elephants would live out their days in the center.

Florida, the Greatest State on Earth

    It should come as no surprise that American Horror Story’s fourth season, Freak Show, took place in Florida. Many movies and T.V. shows have explored Florida’s circus towns, especially Gibsonton. If you’re fascinated by the history of the circus and want to experience what it was like in its heyday, there are plenty of things here for you to explore. Visit the museums and spend some time in the towns to learn why Florida might just be the Greatest State on Earth.